Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Would Improve Data Quality and Timeliness of FEMA's Public Assistance Appeals Processing
In both 2016 and 2017, 15 U.S. disasters resulted in losses exceeding $1 billion each. To help recover, state and local governments may apply to FEMA for grants for debris removal, public facility repairs, and similar activities.
Applicants have two chances to appeal grant decisions. However, we found that, from 2014 to July 2017, FEMA processed only 9% of first-level and 11% of second-level appeals within its 90-day limit.
Although FEMA has improved management of the appeals process in the last few years, it still faces challenges. Among other things, we recommended measures to more accurately track appeals and to develop FEMA's workforce.
Summary of FEMA's First- and Second-Level Public Assistance Appeals Process
This graphic summarizes the first- and second-level appeals process under FEMA’s Public Assistance program.
What GAO Found
Weaknesses in the quality of Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA) appeals data limit its ability to oversee the appeals process. For example, FEMA's data are inaccurate and incomplete because regional offices do not consistently track first-level appeals and FEMA does not have processes to ensure data quality. When GAO discussed these weaknesses with FEMA officials, they acknowledged them and provided GAO with corrected data for January 2014 through July 2017. GAO's analyses of the corrected data show fluctuations in the appeal inventory from year to year depending on the number of disasters declared and delays in processing. For example, as shown in the figure, only 9 percent of first-level and 11 percent of second-level appeals were processed within the 90-day statutory timeframe.
Processing Times for Decided Appeals, Based on Appeals FEMA Received between January 2014 and July 2017
FEMA has taken steps to improve its management of the appeals process—including issues that GAO and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General identified in 2008 and 2011. For example, FEMA increased its appeal staffing levels and developed standard operating procedures. Despite these efforts, FEMA continued to face a number of workforce challenges that contributed to processing delays, such as staff vacancies, staff turnover, and delays in training. FEMA has not developed a workforce staffing plan to identify hiring, training, and retention needs across its headquarters and regional offices, though FEMA officials acknowledge the potential benefits of having such a plan and stated that they are focused on filling vacancies. In the absence of a workforce plan, FEMA will continue to experience workforce challenges that could further contribute to delays in processing appeals.
FEMA has not established goals and measures for assessing first-level appeals processing performance, but has done so for second-level appeals. FEMA views establishing these first-level goals and measures as the responsibility of its regional offices. Without goals and measures, FEMA is limited in its ability to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of its overall appeals process and identify and address weaknesses that may lead to delays in making appeal decisions.
Why GAO Did This Study
In both 2016 and 2017, 15 separate U.S. disasters resulted in losses exceeding $1 billion each. FEMA provides PA grants to state and local governments to help communities recover from such disasters. If applicants disagree with FEMA's decision on their PA grant application, they have two chances to appeal: a first-level appeal to be decided by the relevant FEMA regional office and, if denied, a second-level appeal to be decided within FEMA's Recovery Directorate. Each is subject to a 90-day statutory processing timeframe.
GAO was asked to review FEMA's appeals process. This report examines: (1) the extent to which FEMA ensures the quality of its appeals data and what these data show about PA appeals inventory and timeliness; (2) what steps FEMA has taken to improve its management of the appeals process and what challenges, if any, remain; and (3) the extent to which FEMA developed goals and measures to assess program performance. GAO analyzed FEMA policies, procedures, and data on appeals and interviewed officials from headquarters and from regional offices with the highest number of pending appeals. GAO also spoke to state officials from the two states within each of the three regions with the highest number of pending appeals.
GAO is making four recommendations, including that FEMA implement a consistent approach for tracking appeals and ensuring data quality, develop a workforce plan, and develop measurable goals for processing first-level appeals. FEMA concurred with all four recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Assistant Administrator for Recovery should design and implement the necessary processes and procedures to ensure a uniform and consistent approach for tracking first-level appeals data to better integrate regional trackers with the Public Assistance Appeals and Audits Branch's (PAAB) own first-level appeals tracker. (Recommendation 1)||
Following the publication of our report, FEMA reported that in June 2018, PAAB implemented a number of actions to address this recommendation. These actions include developing a checklist for PAAB appeals staff and FEMA regional appeals staff to use to review the completeness of first-level appeals data in PAAB's first-level appeals tracker. According to FEMA, this action ensures that all mandatory data fields within PAAB's first-level appeals tracker are completed by regional appeals staff. Using the checklist, regional appeals staff and PAAB appeals staff review the completeness of first-level appeals data in PAAB's own first-level appeals tracker. Regional appeals staff input first-level appeals data that had been missing from mandatory data fields within PAAB's first-level appeals tracker. PAAB appeals staff use quarterly telephone conferences with regional appeals staff to review progress made toward ensuring the completeness of first-level appeals data within PAAB's and the region's first-level appeals trackers. In addition, PAAB has developed additional content in its appeals staff training materials that highlights the importance of data integrity and accuracy in the processing of PA appeals. The training sessions incorporating this additional content were delivered to appeals staff from 9 of FEMA's ten regional offices over the past year. FEMA indicated that it planned to administer training to the remaining regional office in 2019.
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Assistant Administrator for Recovery should design and implement the necessary controls to ensure the quality of the first-level appeals data collected at and reported from the regional offices to PAAB. (Recommendation 2)||
Following publication of our report, FEMA reported that in May 2018 PAAB began collecting monthly baseline data from PAAB's First-Level Appeals SharePoint tracker to check for erroneous and/or inconsistent data entries. According to FEMA, as part of this effort, PAAB tracks changes in the number of errors and/or inconsistencies in the first-level appeals data. On at least a quarterly basis, PAAB transmits to FEMA regional offices a First-Level Appeals Tracker Data Check Report that contains monthly snapshots of the number and type of errors and inconsistencies associated with first-level appeals data submitted by regional offices. Regional offices then use the First-Level Appeals Tracker Data Check Report to rectify first-level appeals data errors and inconsistencies. In addition, FEMA reported that PAAB has developed and included additional content that highlights the importance of data integrity in its certified appeals analyst training.
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Assistant Administrator for Recovery should develop a detailed workforce plan that documents steps for hiring, training, and retaining key appeals staff. The plan should also address staff transitions resulting from deployments to disasters. (Recommendation 3)||
Following the publication of our report, FEMA reported that in May 2019, the Public Assistance Appeals and Audits Branch (PAAB) completed an analysis of first-level appeal timeliness, inventory, and staffing in each FEMA region. Based on this analysis, PAAB determined that while most regions were staffed to meet regulatory deadlines, or address episodic, short-term issues, FEMA Regions IV, VI, and IX experienced consistent challenges. PAAB determined that these challenges were due to the regions' large appeal inventories and the regions could benefit from a regional workforce plan to address first-level appeals processing. PAAB subsequently provided the Recovery Division Directors with the first-level appeal analysis results and recommended an appeal analyst-to-appeal ratio of 1:7 as a staffing tool that regions could adopt to help support timely appeals processing. In July 2020, FEMA officials told us that a staffing model was being developed that would include partnering recovery program offices with regional staff and the Field Operations Directorate to develop staffing plans for FEMA's recovery programs, including the PA program. However, in October 2021, FEMA officials told us that due to project considerations and FEMA's 2021 Hurricane disaster activity and shifting priorities, FEMA placed the staffing model on hold indefinitely. In place of the staffing model, FEMA officials pointed to various PA appeals workforce planning efforts at both PAAB and FEMA regions, as well as FEMA's continued monitoring and evaluation of staffing planning assumptions to support closure of this recommendation. For example, FEMA continued to support balancing the regions' workload by re-evaluating its 1:7 appeal analyst-to-appeal ratio using an alternative methodology. In doing so, PAAB determined that the 1:7 ratio was still appropriate for balancing workload demands. At the same time, FEMA provided documentation in March 2022 that demonstrates PAAB's continued monitoring and workload forecasting to ensure adequate staffing and anticipate the need for additional staff to address the increasing workload from "traditional" disasters along with the increases in projects, funding, and appeals related to COVID-19 declarations. In the regions, both prior to 2020 and into 2022, PAAB continued to work closely and meet regularly with regional leadership to: (1) help develop standard positions (e.g., appeal analyst with requisite training identified); (2) support the regions in identifying and hiring needed resources; and (3) provide recurring training, continuing education, and just-in-time support. Further, between 2018 and 2022, FEMA took steps with regard to appeals analyst training, including developing an introductory course for Public Assistance Appeals Analysts and the addition of a quarterly Appeals Continuing Education Series. PAAB has worked closely with regions experiencing issues affecting their ability to provide timely appeal responses. For example, in response to a regional director's request for assistance, in April and May 2021, PAAB conducted a review of the region's appeal processing and provided a written report in June 2021 with findings and recommendations to the region. These actions taken together address this recommendation.
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Assistant Administrator for Recovery should work with Regional Administrators in all 10 regional offices, to establish and use goals and measures for processing first-level PA appeals to monitor performance and report on progress. (Recommendation 4)||
Following the publication of our report, FEMA reported that in May 2019, PAAB had partnered with FEMA's Recovery Analytics Division (RAD) to leverage their skills in developing goals that could help to improve first appeals performance across all ten regions. According to FEMA, this effort produced a list of 5 metrics sent to Regional Recovery leadership that reflected best practices for the timely processing, tracking, and reporting of first-level appeals. In September 2019, PAAB briefed both the Regional Recovery program leadership and the Regional Administrators on these metrics. PAAB also released an Appeals Guide in November 2019, consolidating previous process documents into a single source that referenced first-level PA appeal metrics and goals and where PA staff can find them on PAAB's SharePoint site. In July 2020, FEMA provided GAO with additional documentation that included an updated PA appeals metrics spreadsheet by FEMA region (2014-2019), the RAD analysis of the metrics for 2014-2019, and slides for use by FEMA regional leadership in presentations on the PA appeals metrics.